Football, France: Happy French return to reality

THE FRENCH league season kicked off last night with the country still basking in the euphoria that greeted their first World Cup triumph.

Two goals from Zinedine Zidane and a third from Arsenal's Emmanuel Petit against Brazil brought a million fans on to the Champs-Elysees to celebrate victory in the final last month - and France was transformed, at least for the time being, into a football-crazy nation.

But, when it comes to domestic competition, the star names are noticeable by their absence. Of the 11 men who started the final, only one still earns his salary in the French league - the Monaco goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.

However, Monaco may face a struggle to keep Barthez following his starring role in the finals. He and his fellow French squad members, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, have all been linked with moves. Monaco began their campaign in far-off Brittany last night, visiting Lorient, newcomers to the top flight.

Monaco may be known across the world over as a playground of the rich, but the French title is currently in the possession of Lens, a small northern town built on coal and perhaps more familiar with England's travelling fans this summer.

The proud little club, whose ground staged several World Cup games, including England's victory over Colombia and France's 1-0 golden-goal win over Paraguay, also fear a raid on their title-winning squad, with the Cameroon midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe a recent target for Manchester United. The champions begin their campaign today with a trip to Toulouse.

Auxerre, deprived of the talents of last season's top European scorer Stephane Guivarc'h, now at Newcastle, launch their quest with a trip to Rennes today. They must also make changes at the back with Lionel Charbonnier, one of Barthez's understudies at France 98, now on the Rangers payroll. But they can still field Bernard Diomede, a bit-part midfield player in the French World Cup squad.

Nantes visit Marseilles, who boast the services of Christophe Dugarry. The experienced striker scored France's first goal of the tournament against South Africa and came on as a substitute against Brazil in the final - but he was lampooned in French television's version of Spitting Image for his profligacy in front of goal with a series of cruel sketches.

Also at the Stade Velodrome is Laurent Blanc, who starred in the stout French defence as well as scoring the golden goal winner against Paraguay. But the veteran missed out on the final, after being sent off after a skirmish with Croatia's Slaven Bilic in the semi-final. Marseilles' third World Cup man, although he was on the fringes, is Robert Pires, signed from Metz in the close season. The former Middlesbrough man Fabrizio Ravanelli remains one of their options up front.

The Corsican outfit Bastia host Montpellier while Nancy entertain newly- promoted Sochaux, who won the Portsmouth centenary tournament last weekend, and Strasbourg meet Lyon.

Bordeaux, the club where Zidane blossomed before moving to Juventus, host another team likely to do well, Paris St-Germain, whose only representative in Jacquet's squad was the former West Ham goalkeeper Bernard Lama.

PSG have strengthened their hand under their new coach Alain Giresse with the signing of the Nigerian World Cup playmaker Jay-Jay Okocha for a French record pounds 11m from the Turkish side, Fenerbahce.

France's first domestic season as world champions actually got under way last night in the unremarkable setting of the northern port town, Le Havre, where the home side played host to Metz one and a half hours before Monaco were due to take the field at Lorient - a scene far removed from the Stade de France.